The Woman in Black
Daniel Radcliffe stars in this chilling ghost story
The Woman in Black
Directed by James Watkins. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Roger Allam, Shaun Dooley, David Burke, Sophie Stuckey, Roger Allam. Written by Jane Goldman. from the novel by Susan Hill.
The Woman in Black, centered around a spooky isolated house and the titular apparition who supposedly haunts it, has proven to be one of the UK’s most popular modern day ghost stories; Susan Hill’s 1983 novel has been turned into a stage play, a pair of BBC radio broadcasts, an 1989 television movie and now a feature film starring a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe.
The new film, directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake), takes the premise of the novel and layers it with the expected jump scares and an (unexpected) Ring/Grudge J-horror-style subplot. It’s not entirely successful, but it gets one thing very right: this is a damn scary ride.
Most of the time, anyway. There’s that foreboding sense of dread as the solicitor Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), still grieving over his wife’s death four years prior, travels from London to a small east coast town in the early 1900s. He’s there to handle the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, but the townspeople want nothing to do with him, and warn him to leave town immediately.
But he’s not scared – yet; the townsfolk are too vague in their warnings, aren’t they always, provoking curiosity more than terror. Kipps does meet one benevolent local, the wealthy Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), whose wife Elizabeth (Janet McTeer) believes their dead son has been communicating with her from the grave.
The Drablow manor – Eel Marsh House – is the setting for roughly half of the film, as Arthur, alone, must go through the dead woman’s papers. It’s a wonderful setup: not only is this spooky Victorian manor inhabited by ghosts, but it’s also shrouded in heavy fog and only accessible twice per day, during low tide, otherwise the only road is submerged underwater. Usually we’re yelling for the protagonist to just get out of the house in these films; here, it’s just as terrifying outdoors.
Most chilling is the titular woman in black: standing there in the distance, her features obscured. There’s a wonderfully long, sustained sequence at the old house that features a terrified Arthur running around, coming back to the same place only to find that something has changed. Radcliffe seems too young for the part (he has a four-year-old son), but he brings a kind of innocence to the character that endears him to us.
Towards the end, as plot seems to unnaturally take control of the film (the characters seem to act as if they’d seen other, recent, supernatural horror films), too much is revealed (in terms of both backstory and special effects) and the film loses it’s truly chilling quality: once the unknown becomes known, we lose our fear of it. But a surprisingly effective – and unusual, for PG-13 horror – finale helps make up for it.
Mainstream ghost stories have had a resurgence over the past year, with Insidious, Paranormal Activity 3, and now The Woman in Black providing the kind of chills that The Innocents and The Haunting provided audiences in the 1960s. While the quality of this new crop can’t compare to those classics, they do deliver the scares.
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